Dear Still Water Friends,
When I was growing up in a secular Jewish family in Los Angeles, one of the few religious traditions we observed was the Passover Seder with relatives. One year, when I was about thirteen, I became aware of some discord as we read aloud from the Haggadah, the book which guides one through the prayers, stories, and rituals of the Passover meal. My father, then about fifty years old, born in Chicago to immigrant parents, wanted to skip over sections, so we could begin our dinner. My mother’s uncle, then about seventy-five years old, born and raised from Eastern Europe, wanted to include more, especially the Hebrew prayers. My father, sitting at the head of the table, brushed off each of my uncle’s requests, often with a mocking tone. The message I received, then and at other times, was that what my uncle wanted was old fashioned and silly.
In the decade that followed, my home-nourished antipathy to religious institutions and commitments was strengthened through my association with progressive social scientists and activists. They, like my father, mocked religious commitments and beliefs, teaching me terms such as “false consciousness” and “opiate of the masses.”
And yet, during those same years a deep longing kept drawing me to religious institutions and people. I attended services at Christian churches and Hindu temples. I read the New Testament, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and the writings of medieval Catholic mystics. A retired Congregational minister whom I met in college at an anti-war rally became a friend and mentor. I attended Quaker meetings, took courses in Buddhist studies, and spent several school breaks in a Cistercian monastery. I tried several times, too, to connect with Jewish groups, but we didn’t seem to understand each other.
For the next twenty years I was caught in a spiritual approach-avoidance pattern, looking for meaning, direction, and a sense of belonging in the universe, but quick to perceive religious institutions as doctrinaire or inauthentic. Spiritually, I felt alone and lonely.
This changed when I encountered mindfulness practice, and especially Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh. My spiritual thirst was appreciated and I felt nourished by the mindfulness practices I was learning. Also, intellectually there was little to push against: Thich Nhat Hanh also disdained dogma and artificiality. I had found a spiritual tradition that addressed my longings and to which I could commit.
At Plum Village, as well as across the Buddhist tradition, when one wishes to commit to the practice of mindfulness, one begins by “Going for refuge.” One says to a teacher and to a community:
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.
This affirms one’s personal commitment to the path of mindfulness and, like a confirmation or B Mitzvah (inclusive phrasing), publicly announces one’s entry into a spiritual community. While it is not necessary to formally commit to a Buddhist community to develop our mindfulness, walking the spiritual path is made easier when, in some fashion, we generate the commitment and attitude implicit in “Going for refuge.”
A refuge is a source of help, relief, or comfort during a time of trouble. When I say, “I take refuge in the Buddha” I think of the historical person who founded the Buddhist tradition twenty-six hundred years ago. When I take refuge in the Buddha, I also think of the idea of enlightenment—the possibility of living in this world with a calm mind and a joyful heart. It comforts me to know that for millennia other people have struggled with suffering and meaninglessness and, through their mindfulness, concentration, and insight, have transformed their lives.
When I say, “I take refuge in the Dharma,” I think of the teachings of the Buddha and his spiritual successors: the hundreds of discourses given by the Buddha, as well as the commentaries and additional teachings that have enriched the Buddhist tradition as it has adapted to new places and times. From its inception the Dharma was not “a” teaching, like a creed or systematic theology, but rather a collection of teaching stories and helpful ideas. Not a fixed course menu, but a list of a la carte offerings. The Buddha encouraged practitioners to choose explanations and practices that worked best for them. The criterion that should guide their choice, he suggested, was: “Does it truly relieve suffering?”
The word “Dharma” can also mean reality, the world as it really is, the world we would see if we let go of our misconceptions and ignorance. The two connotations of Dharma are, of course, related. The Buddhist teachings help us come into close, personal touch with the world as it is. Taking refuge in the Dharma is taking refuge in the present moment. We are able to live calmly and act wisely when we are able to experience each moment deeply, aware of our body, our feelings, our mind states, and our consciousness.
In the Buddha’s time “Sangha” referred to the interdependent communities that embraced the his teachings: the monks and nuns who followed the wandering mendicant life and the lay men and women who lived in the conventional world, supported the monastic community, and developed their spiritual practice through contact with monastic teachers.
In a larger sense, “Sangha” refers to any spiritual community, formal or informal, that supports our spiritual path. It could be a church or temple, a practice center, or family members and a few close friends. One way or another, however, others are needed. They encourage us, offer guidance, and mirror back to us the strengths and weaknesses that are difficult for us to see.
In Touching Peace Thich Nhat Hanh highlights the importance of Sangha:
. . . we put our trust in a community of fellow practitioners who are solid. A teacher can be important and also the teachings, but friends are the most essential element of the practice. It is difficult or even impossible to practice without a Sangha.
For me, one of the critical functions of a Sangha, or of having friends in the practice, is that they provide opportunities for me to become more fluent with the language of mindfulness. Many words have different meanings in the context of mindfulness practice, and sometimes the variant meanings are tied to larger conceptual frameworks. Over time, as our practice grows, the language of mindfulness becomes integrated with how we unselfconsciously think and talk about our own lives and the lives of others.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will share our experiences with spiritual commitments and communities.
You are invited to be with us.
On Saturday, January 4, 2020, the Washington DC area mindfulness communities will join together to transmit the Three Refuges and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. If you are associated with the Still Water MPC and would like to receive the Refuges and the Mindfulness Trainings in January, or would like to discuss the possibility, please email us at info@StillWaterMPC.org. (Everyone is invited to attend. It is a joyous and heartening event and your presence will support those who are receiving transmission.)
As is our tradition on the first Thursday of the month, we will also offer a brief newcomers’ orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.